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Freedom in Film: Won’t Back Down (2012)

With students everywhere heading to class, we hope you enjoy Part 3 of Cascade’s “virtual” back-to-school School Choice Film Fest.

Social problem films are not generally “feel-good” movies, in the sense that viewers feel comfortable with their feet up, eating popcorn, laughing with the heroes, and hoping for happily ever after. Won’t Back Down (2012) is a bit different. The film makes clear the near-impossibility of a desperate single mother getting her small daughter out of the worst public school in town; but it maintains a buoyant, upbeat vibe.

Here is what Cascade’s Steve Buckstein said about Won’t Back Down when it opened in theaters:

It’s not often that a Hollywood movie both entertains and helps parents learn about another option to improve their children’s education. The film Won’t Back Down…does both.

Inspired by actual events, it’s the story of a third-grade student trapped in a failing public school. Unable to afford a private education, her mother, played by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, learns about parent trigger laws, now the reality in seven states, which allow parents to take control of such schools and institute improvements.

Gyllenhaal enlists the help of a dedicated teacher in her daughter’s school, played by actress Viola Davis, to jump through the myriad of hoops put in their way. Together, they learn how to fight not only the bureaucracy, but the powerful teachers union, personified by actress Holly Hunter.

The film explores the complex relationships among good teachers, bad teachers, and a union whose leader once famously said he’d represent the interests of schoolchildren when they started paying union dues. Poor parents who want the best for their children are given a glimpse of the educational choices that those with political power are able to make.

Surprisingly, the good guys aren’t all good, and the bad guys aren’t all bad, in this multi-layered drama….

Won’t Back Down was criticized by some as “anti-union” or even “anti-teacher.” But it is actually a relatively gentle take on union/parent/teacher conflicts. The film takes extra care to present the concerns and fears of lifelong public school teachers and union members with sympathy and understanding. The characters are lovable, and the drama is human.

The takeaway can be summed up by the school board member who, casting the decisive vote, says….Well, you’ll have to see the movie to find out.

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Freedom in Film: Waiting for “Superman” (2010)

With students everywhere heading to class, we hope you enjoy Part 2 of Cascade’s “virtual” back-to-school School Choice Film Fest.

The 2010 documentary film Waiting for “Superman” ignited new interest in the desperate desire of low-income parents to get their kids out of failing, one-size-fits-all public schools into better-performing charter schools. The five children poignantly profiled in the film faced barriers to their dreams in the form of too few charter school seats and a lottery acceptance process that made their futures dependent on a roll of the dice.

Charter schools have become a vital education option for thousands of students throughout the U.S. Moviegoers previously unfamiliar with charter schools (public schools with more freedom to be innovative than traditional district public schools) began to understand why parents―especially lower-income parents―want their kids so much to have a chance to attend charters.

Demand for charter schools far outstrips available seats, as Cascade’s 2011 study of Oregon charter school waiting lists found. Opening more charter schools is an important piece of the education reform puzzle. However, immediate, viable, successful alternatives to failing public schools have existed, often right in parents’ own neighborhoods, for decades. In much of the U.S., those options pre-date the American public school system itself.

Private and parochial schools have been a lifeline for low-income kids for generations, and today’s school choice movement seeks to maximize parents’ options for choosing the public, private, online, public charter, or home school that is the best fit for their children. Dozens of states and the District of Columbia have pioneered voucher programs, education tax credit laws, and Education Savings Accounts for parents. Private charity also plays a major role in helping children in need get a hand up early in life.

Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, may be the most flexible way for states to help children learn in the ways that are best for them. ESAs are not a college savings plan. Rather, if families decide the public schools to which their children are assigned are not meeting their needs, they can leave those schools and instead receive money from the state to pay for approved alternative education options and expenses. Parents can spend the funds on private school tuition, individual courses at public schools, tutoring, online learning, textbooks, educational therapies, and other education-related services and products. They can use a combination of these services based on what they think would best meet their child’s learning needs.

Reforming our public education system is necessary, but low-income kids can’t wait for Superman. When the 2017 Oregon legislative session begins in January, ask your state legislators to empower Oregon children to succeed in whatever education setting works for them by supporting an Education Savings Account law.

And if you haven’t seen it yet, this is a great week to watch Waiting for “Superman.”

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Freedom in Film: To Sir, with Love (1967)

With students everywhere heading to class, we hope you enjoy Part 1 of Cascade’s “virtual” back-to-school School Choice Film Fest.

Nearing the end of his patience, a first-year teacher challenges his scarcely literate students to think seriously about the lives ahead of them. What will happen after high school graduation? One academically indifferent girl supposes she’ll get married, giggling that “everybody gets married.”

Such comfortable assumptions have disappeared since 1967; much else about the lives and troubles of at-risk teenagers hasn’t.

To Sir, with Love stars Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackeray, an engineer who takes a temporary teaching job. The kids are rough, uninterested in school, and oblivious to the possibility that they could become more than they are. The gentlemanly Mr. Thackeray, called “Sir” by his students, is as much a culture shock to them as they are to him.

To Sir, with Love is like a time capsule of the late 1960s: Sentimental optimism contrasts with the grittiness of poverty, illiteracy, teenage rebellion, and rapid social change. There is a sense that Mr. Thackeray’s class is careening wildly toward dead-end or delinquent adulthoods, and he has a few short weeks to reach at least some of his students before they are lost. His greatest asset as a teacher, though, has nothing to do with cutting-edge curriculum or teaching “best practices.”

It is culture. “Sir” is a living example of another world which his students could choose to enter, if only they could see themselves in it. Through him they experience, for the first time, what it is to have dignity. As the teenagers begin to awaken to their own self-worth, they start to grasp why people have manners, respect others, and behave in ways that draw respect in turn. They take interest in the written word and the process of intellectual inquiry.

Education is more than transmission of facts; it’s an invitation to explore the world of the soul, of human creative capacity, and of the physical universe. When students get in touch with their own dignity as human beings, they grasp the meaning of learning. They no longer mark time until school is out; they transform as students and as people.

Great teachers help students discover the grandeur of human existence, potential, and achievement and that they are made for more than superficial pleasures and “easy outs.” To Sir, with Love shows what can happen when the right adult comes into a teenager’s life at the right time―and why that’s so important.

Freedom in Film: Follow That Dream (1962)

What may be the funniest movie about personal initiative and limited government? Look no further than Follow That Dream (1962), a rollicking pro-freedom comedy starring Arthur O’Connell and Elvis Presley.

Elvis plays Toby Kwimper, the young adult son in a family that gets just about every possible government entitlement benefit; and his dad (O’Connell) is proud of it. When overbearing bureaucrats make them angry, what does the Kwimper family do? They swear off their benefit checks, build a homestead on an empty beach in Florida, and start a small business. With several subplots, Follow That Dream shows off Elvis’s deadpan comic ability. He outwits the mafia, cunning social workers, and (most) adolescent girls with equal aplomb.

Suitable for family viewing, the movie delivers a victory for ordinary folks over the powers that be. It’s full of jokes about welfare-state attitudes, zoning laws, and government “looking out for you.” In the climactic courtroom scene, a judge praises the American spirit of enterprise, initiative, and voluntary community.

As Pop Kwimper puts it, sometimes there just gets to be too much government, and a person wants to move someplace without all those regulations. If you’ve ever felt that way after a frustrating encounter with bureaucracy, Follow That Dream will have you in stitches.

Freedom in Film: Ever After (1998)

If you are looking for an uplifting summer movie for the teenage girls in your life, Ever After: A Cinderella Story (1998) provides a thought-provoking twist on the classic fairytale. While director Andy Tennant’s plot follows the traditional story, Ever After also explores themes of family loyalty, economic interdependence, social justice, and the rewards of hard work.

In a refreshing departure from predictable Hollywood storylines, Drew Barrymore’s tough and brave Cinderella (“Danielle”) combines a loving respect for her family’s heritage with a can-do approach to solving problems. A hard-working, educated girl―homeschooled by her father―she wants more than anything to restore the just order of her “economy” (in the ancient Greek sense of “managing the home”).

Orphaned young, Danielle does not dream of escaping work. Rather, she defines “happily ever after” as the restoration of her family’s estate to the prosperity it enjoyed under her parents. Like them, she takes pride in the farm and regrets it can’t reach its potential under her stepmother (Anjelica Huston), who has no interest in running what is essentially the family business. Danielle tries to be a good steward of the patrimony she should have inherited, even though her freedom to act independently is limited.

In Danielle’s world, the feudal agrarian society of the Middle Ages begins to meet the mercantile economy of the Renaissance. Forward-thinking Danielle masters the business acumen needed to keep the estate financially afloat; but her primary motivations are rooted in the medieval values of family loyalty, mutual obligation to others, and fulfilling one’s duty. Danielle considers “family” to include servants with multigenerational ties to the household. She wants to succeed for the sake of those whose livelihoods depend on her, as well as for herself.

An admirer of the English humanist Sir Thomas More, Danielle’s father bequeathed to her an inquiring mind and a social conscience. While Danielle’s Utopia-inspired prescriptions for the improvement of society have a fairytale simplicity, her instincts are basically good. She lives the Golden Rule with humility and charm. Her interactions with others show she believes in behaving with dignity and respect toward all whose various roles in society together make the world go ’round.

Of course, Ever After is a fairytale, so while it’s set in 16th-century France, the film isn’t without anachronisms and fictionalized historical events. (Obviously, the son of King Francis I didn’t marry a girl named Danielle, sorry to say.) But if you are looking for a delightful story about filial love, the blessing of honest work, and the ability of virtue to attract the right man, Ever After offers positive lessons, while entertaining the whole family.

Freedom in Film: Gettysburg (1993)

“Up, men! And to your posts! And let no man forget today, that you are from Old Virginia!”

―Major General George Pickett

In Gone with the Wind, Rhett Butler grimly tells Scarlett O’Hara that a looming battle soon would “pretty well fix things, one way or the other.” It would take place in “some little town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg.”

The 1993 film Gettysburg recreates the events surrounding July 1-3, 1863. Unlike many war movies, including Civil War films, Gettysburg doesn’t really “take sides.” Instead, the film delves into the minds and hearts of both Northern and Southern combatants, largely through the thoughts and decisions of General Robert E. Lee (Martin Sheen), Major General George Pickett (Stephen Lang), and Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Jeff Daniels), among many others.

Gettysburg manages to convey understanding of, if not sympathy for, the wide range of motives and issues with which honest people grappled on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line in the 1860s. This approach makes the movie an excellent introduction to both the Civil War and the culture of the Old South for high school and college history students.

Because of the issue of slavery, it can be easy for many 21st-century Americans to relate immediately to the perspective of the North. However, the war was actually much more complicated than a conflict over slavery. The slavery issue brought deep-seated, decades-long tensions between the agrarian South and the industrial North to a head. The war was also about federalism, sectionalism, federal tax laws and their effects on state economies, and cultural differences between the North and the South.

Many Southerners were loyal to their home states in the same way their grandparents had been loyal to the colonies at the time of the American Revolution. They believed they had the right to declare independence if their states’ legitimate interests were no longer served (or their rights were being abused) by the federal government or by other states, just as the colonies had separated from Britain. As one Southern general put it while musing one evening in the camp, the federal government denying Southern states the right to secede from the Union seemed like a voluntary club refusing to permit people to resign their membership when aggrieved.

Countless surviving letters from Southern soldiers and their families show they believed they were fighting for their homes, freedom, rights, and the sovereignty of their states. On the other hand, the United States was becoming a world power. The Northern states feared that secession would result in numerous tiny, powerless, irrelevant countries. The United States as a nation―and its Constitution―would fail. After the Civil War, the phrase “these United States,” in common parlance in the 1800s, faded. It was replaced by “the United States,” a singular noun, as we say now.

The causes and the legacy of the Civil War are not intuitive for many Americans today, especially for those who live far from the South. Because Gettysburg is a long movie, there is enough time and thoughtful dialogue for viewers without much understanding of the history behind the battle to be pulled into the philosophical, moral, and cultural underpinnings of the events. Gorgeous cinematography and a soul-stirring musical score remind viewers that it’s possible to hold in one’s heart both Old Glory and Dixie, and still to miss Old Virginia, 150 years after the war.


This article was originally published June 22, 2013.

 

 

Freedom in Film: Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot (1957)

Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot is the longest running motion picture ever, watched by more than 30 million visitors to Colonial Williamsburg since 1957. One of the most technologically advanced films of its day, it was recently remastered and restored to its original vibrancy. For those who can’t retrace the birth of freedom in Virginia’s colonial capital this Independence Day, Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot is available online.

A 2004 feature in Colonial Williamsburg magazine explains this film’s significance: “…[F]or forty-seven years The Patriot has introduced guests to Williamsburg and America on the eve of the Revolution. It shows the people of eighteenth-century Williamsburg as they might have been, introduces characters that made the nation, [and] helps audiences understand the issues that divided colonists from one another and from the mother country.”

In one memorable scene, Virginia colonist John Frye (Jack Lord) discusses the impending war with another landowner. His friend is disturbed by talk of independence and says he has decided to go “home,” meaning back to England. John’s reply reflects the shift in loyalty felt by Virginia’s patriots: “I am home.”

Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot is only about 40 minutes long, making it appropriate for young viewers and for classroom use. If you want to make America’s founding come alive for your family or students, Colonial Williamsburg’s website features extensive interactive history sections and multimedia presentations designed to make the people and issues of the 1770s accessible to children and teenagers.

Not everyone can experience the “Revolutionary City” in person, but through technology you can bring the characters of the American Revolution home.

Freedom in Film: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Have you taken your children to see Captain America: Civil War? There’s nothing like a summer superhero blockbuster to jumpstart a conversation about the meaning of freedom, the importance of personal responsibility, and how to know what’s right to do. The Acton Institute’s Jordan Ballor recently described Captain America’s themes of freedom and conscience this way:

The basic dynamic of the film focuses on conflict between authority and responsibility. The film could well be understood as an extended reflection on Edmund Burke’s observation: “Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.”

[…]Captain America champions the rights of conscience and roots the legitimacy of the Avengers in their responsible autonomy.

In Civil War[…]we find an expression of the perennial conflict between individual conscience and communal coercion. Cap represents the best of the liberal tradition in his emphasis on virtue, responsibility, and well-formed moral action. By contrast, Stark represents the temptation to outsource moral government to others, effectively indenturing the Avengers in servitude to some impersonal, international governmental panel….

Captain America works from the assumption that such autonomy, once given up, is perhaps impossible to regain. In a display of incisive political insight, Cap also recognizes the public choice realities of all governmental regimes. The government “runs by people with agendas and agendas change.” He thus realizes the complexities of what might happen when partisans vie for power over the Avengers, and the dilemmas they would face when ordered to engage or to disengage when their own judgment would lead them to do otherwise. The truth that Captain America recognizes is that you can never really outsource the responsibility to obey your conscience. Or as the Dutch politician and theologian Abraham Kuyper put it toward the end of the nineteenth century, “The conscience marks a boundary that the state may never cross.”

(Jordan Ballor’s article “The Captain of Conscience” [spoiler alert] can be found here.)

Freedom in Fiction: Mansfield Park

“Wretchedly did [Sir Thomas] feel, that with all the cost and care of an anxious and expensive education, he had brought up his daughters, without…his being acquainted with their character and temper.”

Graduation season begins this weekend. With young Oregonians taking their next steps in life, why not revisit a classic story about young people setting out into the world of new jobs, independent incomes, first homes, debt, leisure, and love?

Of all Jane Austen’s novels, Mansfield Park is probably the most misunderstood and underrated. Unlike Austen’s more popular tales of upper-class English gentry, Mansfield does not star a confident young woman from a prominent family. Instead, Fanny Price is a shy teenager, dependent on wealthy relatives, who says little in public and hates attention. Mansfield is the only Austen novel in which the full force of a cynical world comes crashing down on an inexperienced teenage girl who seems least equipped to fight it.

The most contemplative of Austen’s works, Mansfield is not so much about a young girl’s search for love as it is a careful study of how not to lose oneself while trying to “make it” in the world. Because Fanny is a quiet person, she observes her peers while they hash out among themselves what is important to their lives and how they judge what they encounter. They debate―often acrimoniously―what their career choices should be, how much money they stand to make, what prestige they can earn in the eyes of others, and what are the criteria by which they should evaluate these decisions.

As their friendships unfold, the young adults of Mansfield Park don’t appear much different from today’s college students. In the brief window of time in which they settle their ideals, professions, friends, and spouses, they show each other their true colors. They discover they have irreconcilable worldviews. They decide what they can and can’t live with. Their romantic and financial decisions bear fruit.

Henry Crawford and his sister Mary, friends of Fanny’s relatives, excuse their personal shortcomings by their upbringing. Raised without the example of stable, responsible adults, they don’t have the confidence (or the will) to operate from a higher set of principles than convenience, social convention, and popular opinions. They admit they don’t have the capacity to trust others or to be reliable in their relationships. Mary is socially adept and attractive, but her cynical biases against concepts and values beyond her personal experiences are crippling. Her intellectual and romantic clashes with Fanny’s favorite cousin reveal the depth of their different approaches to discerning one’s path in life.

The Crawfords had lacked guidance, but Fanny’s cousins have the opposite problem: Sir Thomas confuses his children’s abiding by conventional rules of behavior with authentic character development. Sir Thomas “had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self-denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.”

When three of his four children become involved in public scandals, Sir Thomas’s pain as a parent comes mostly from the realization that he does not truly know who they are. He knows them from the outside―how they tried to do what he expected of them while in his presence―without being acquainted with their minds, hearts, values, and aspirations. Their choices surprise him.

On the other hand, Fanny, despite her social and financial dependence and shy temperament, knows herself. Lacking self-deception or illusions about what will make her happiest in life, she is truly independent on a personal level. When morally unreliable (but financially eligible) Henry suggests that by becoming involved with him, Fanny could bring out the best in him, she delivers her most famous line: “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” By calling him to take responsibility for his own conscience, and refusing to make him a romantic “project,” Fanny shows she understands equal relationships. Her refusal to compromise her self-knowledge by being mismatched frees her to seek a healthy relationship. She and the man she really loves are the only young couple in the novel who do not subscribe to, or settle for, a transactional view of friendship.

Mansfield Park and Fanny Price have drawn acerbic criticism from writers who cannot “like” her and wish the novel “came down” on the side of the sparkling, au courant Mary rather than the quiet, conservative Fanny. That the characters make modern readers uncomfortable says more about what we value, and what we think about how to treat other people, than perhaps we want to admit. The contrast between Mary and Fanny is exactly what we are meant to see: No matter how clever she is, Mary is tragic because she will not give up her self-centeredness; Fanny is heroic because she won’t be browbeaten into going along with the crowd.

Personal authenticity requires the ability to say no, to find happiness in simple things, to value one’s primary relationships, to resist the urge to hide from oneself in a blur of activities and friendships that mask a restless spirit, and to make choices that resonate with one’s true self. At a crossroads in life—like high school or college graduation, or any new beginning—these are crucial reflections deserving deep thought. The most important decisions a person will ever make involve choosing a state in life, establishing a healthy outlook on one’s career and finances, and loving a good person. Each involves surrounding ourselves with a set of people and activities that either will enable or inhibit us from being who we ought to be. By remaining steadfast under tremendous pressure, Fanny Price proves not to be Austen’s weakest heroine, but her strongest.


British television’s 2007 Mansfield Park is a condensed but faithful―and charming―movie adaptation which remains true to Austen’s characterization and the most important themes of the novel. The 1999 feature film is seriously flawed. It alters characters, including Fanny’s, in key ways and introduces plot elements that distract from the meaning of the novel. The 1983 miniseries is faithful in both characterization and plot, but it is missing the production values audiences are used to in Austen films made since the early 1990s.

Freedom in Film: Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius (2004)

“Amateur” is French for “one who loves.” But today, the word is commonly misused to imply “mediocre.” Amateurs may love their avocations, our modern minds assume, but not enough to be “really good at it.” “Professionals,” we think, are those who truly excel.

Golf prodigy Bobby Jones was an amateur in the true sense. He played for love of the game and decided not to turn professional, retiring at the astonishingly young age of 28. The only golfer to win the U.S. Amateur, the British Amateur, the British Open, and the U.S. Open in a single year (or in an entire career), Jones is still considered arguably to be the greatest golfer ever.

If you’re a golf aficionado who since last Sunday is already missing the lush greens of Augusta National, you would relish the 2004 film, Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius.

Jim Caviezel stars as Bobby Jones during his rise from obscurity to golf legend. Caviezel brings color and depth to his portrayal of Jones, who was an academic genius and man of dignity, as well as a superb athlete. The film shows Jones’s struggle to overcome his own character flaws, including a fiery temper and a tendency to perfectionism. It also poignantly develops Jones’s relationship with his wife and children and shows how the good of his family factored into his decision to retire from golf at his peak.

Not only was Bobby Jones an outstanding athlete, but he was universally known to be a man of genuine character. Golf writer Herbert Warren Wind said of Jones, “In the opinion of many people, of all the great athletes, Jones came the closest to being what we called a great man.” (The U.S. Golf Association’s award for distinguished sportsmanship is named for Bob Jones.)

While sporting scandals often monopolize headlines, countless athletes compete with integrity, honor their families, and serve their communities. A sports hero can be both an outstanding athlete and a class-act human being. One person’s positive choices have the potential to inspire millions and make the world a better place. If you’ve ever been tempted to cynicism over athletics, Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius is guaranteed to make you smile again.

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